Jenny’s spot for meeting her disappearing sister is an all-night dance hall in Bridgeport, hiding inside what was probably once a newspaper joint. It’s dusty, wide, brick walled, wood floored and smells like a stable. Benches line the walls near a couple of franklin stoves trying feebly to heat the drafty desert space. An electric gramophone croons all alone on a six inch stage and a couple of white haired ladies slow dance on spindly knees near it in the corner.
A barman with his feet on a trash can wakes up when the door bangs shut. He likes the look of Jenny, doesn’t like the look of me, and fixes up a couple of neat gin and tonics where hers is gin and mine is tonic. He’s got a polio left arm and his face bears evidence of an argument with his shaving razor, but he doesn’t say a word to us. Jenny pays, the drinks slide across a bar made of two-by-twelves on stove pipe, and the fella goes back to snoozing.
Jenny lands on the bench by the wall. I eye the exits. There are two: the front door, wood, opaque, and creakily leading to a barren side street a mile north of nowhere; and a couple of saloon doors behind the bar that hide the stockroom. Windows are all above head height and barred. Thin metal pillars barely keep the roof up and provide no cover at all.
“If they want to do fisticuffs this place has plenty of room to play. If they bring guns, we’re toast.” I sit down a body-length from Jenny. She slides her drink at me. I arch an eyebrow. “You don’t want it?”
She shakes her head. “Wits are weapons. Get cozy. Could be here a while. So how come you don’t have a gun? Poverty?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” I never cared for gin; it tastes like pine roots aka starvation food. Mine goes down the hatch and I cradle hers. “I don’t own a gun because guns are just tickets on the train called regret. I’m an adventurer and the thing about adventuring, is as soon as you kill somebody, the newspapers don’t call it an adventure; they call it a murder, and they don’t call you an adventurer either.”
“You’re serious? You really think you’re a hero?”
“Never said I was a hero.” The gin really does taste like regret.
“How do you plan on being a bodyguard if you haven’t got a piece?”
“In my experience staying alive is more about where you go and when than it is about what tools you use to kill.”
I glance up from the gin to find her eyes as wide as church doors. “I just shot somebody. You said it saved your life. Now I’ve hired you to protect me, and you’re saying you aren’t willing to do the same?”
I sigh. “Listen, I’ll do what’s needed. I grew up with guns. Got my first rook rifle when I could barely read. I can hunt anything you name, even men, but I’m not proud of that last thing, and I won’t do it again unless it comes right to the end of the line. Killing somebody isn’t something I do just because I feel unsafe, or I feel powerless, or to protect my honor. Killing is final. Killing is permanent. I will pull the trigger on a human if and only if I know they’re willing to die to get what they want, and also killing them is the only way to stop them in time.”
“Sounds like you think I shouldn’t have saved you. Sounds like you’re judging me.”
“Everybody’s got to make their own choices, Jenny. I don’t think what you did was wrong, even though I wouldn’t have done it.”
“Have you ever killed anyone?” As she asks, her right arm twitches, exactly like she’s feeling the kick of her gun from not an hour ago. She flexes her fingers, and doesn’t look happy.
“Yes I have, and I meant to. Did you?”
She shakes her head and her chin sinks into the collar of her black coat, making her look like a scarecrow with its scalp bleeding straw. It’s the raised-shoulders posture of fear, and maybe a little bit fear of me. I’m not a big guy – tougher than most but not any larger; especially after a few years of few meals. She’s about the same height but skinnier. Not like her sister; the one look I got at Sylvia gave me an impression of muscle like a tigress. Jenny is skin and bones. I stand away from her, out of reach so she can own her own space, but the silence lingers, then starts to sweat. Jenny never takes her eyes off me for long. I can’t tell if she’s more worried about who might come through the door, or who already has.
Finally, I gambit: “You come here often?”
“Only to meet Sylvia.”
“She like to dance?”
“Anything else you want to tell me about her?”
Jenny shakes her head. “Not that’s relevant.”
“Nothing you’d believe. She’s an odd one.”
“Odd? You mean ‘strange?’ Like me.”
Her green eyes flash. “What?”
“Because I’m The Stranger. See?”
A distant car honk echoes through the city streets. Rain taps the sagging roof. Jenny covers her face like a statue of sadness, but when she lifts her eyes they twinkle.
“Alright Stranger,” she says. “I’m gonna shut my eyes for a while. Maybe you can sit on the step outside and holler if you see any goons.”
“Sure,” I say, but I pause near her knee and let the bullets I took from her gun rattle onto the bench. She looks down at them, then her gaze winch-clicks up to meet mine. I shrug. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have taken those.” Then I walk outside.
The rain is sideways and freezing on anything not close to the ground. I lean against cold brick and try to merge with my coat. Keeping watch outside makes sense. That way we can see them coming in time to react. It’s April and it shouldn’t be so cold. I slap my hands together to beat time to rally my troops but not ten minutes later the appearance of snow on the Chicago wind sends me into a disorderly retreat.
Back inside the old flowers finish their dance with glances my way, then the door bangs shut behind them. A clock on the wall ticks like a bomb. Jenny paces. The glass shade of the electric lights on the wall above my bench is a mausoleums for dead bugs, whose piled bodies block the light. My glass of gin has a bottom, and despite my best efforts, I reach it.
I rest against the wall. My breath slows. The barman snores.
We’re expecting Sylvia or her problems to come through the door. It would be stupid to rest my eyes and fall asleep. A mistake. A bad mistake. Don’t do it.
In my dreams I see the dead man again, his almond eyes begging at me as the life slips out. I wake up a couple of times to the unfamiliar room. Jenny’s pacing. Jenny’s talking to the barman like she knows him. Jenny’s staring at me from the wall opposite. She looks away. I hunger for Ethiopian flat bread. In my dreams the dead man and the voice from the shadows are the same; I see him sinking slowly through the canal’s black waters, his face warping more and more bloated and grotesque as he disappears into the waste-filled depths. Then the door bangs open and he strides into the dance hall. There’s a gun in his hand and the room is otherwise empty. Some kind of heavy machine rattles next door. Jenny’s gone.
I’m not dreaming. I’ve woken up, there’s a man with a gun in the hall, and the room is otherwise empty. Shit.
“Mornin’,” he says, casually gesturing with the revolver. His voice is a tenor patter. My stomach puckers.
There’s sleep in my eyes and I’m not seeing clearly. The overhead fixtures are off. It looks like sunlight sliding in from the high windows, but it falls in hard lines leaving the room dark. He stops where a blade of that light runs across his body. Mud covered shoes. Rumpled shirt with freckles that might be blood.
I groan and move to rub my eyes.
“Keep your hands in your lap fella. You got a name? Nevermind.” There’s no waiting, just a water wheel of words rolling on: “I’m looking for a dame: dark hair, lots of muscle and scars. Makes an impression. She comes around here sometimes. Maybe you’ve seen her.” He doesn’t end the sentence with a question mark, but his right hand fans the tips of dollar bills between thumb and index finger. The left shows me the gun.
“Maybe she has.” I sit up a little higher.
He leans forward a tiny bit; the light crosses his features. His face is a twisting maze of deep lines, either burn scars or the remnants of some skin disease. He says: “Talk again.”
“Need a light?” He says it like a threat.
“Thanks, do you mind?” I pat my pockets for the box of matches Jenny bought me and gather my feet to make a move. He’s two paces too far to punch, but I might get there if he’s distracted for a moment.
“Not at all.” The last word drawls. “I’ve got a light right here.”
His pistol shot rattles the windows and the bullet pops right through me. Feels like a wasp sting on my belly, then a great and terrible wrongness seeps into my guts along with the ache of a bone bruise. Oddly enough, I can feel the wet of my blood on the wall behind me even through rising pain. A red stain spreads from the new hole in my shirt.
Warm skin touches my head as he takes my hair and draws my face back. He’s stepped close and with the light above and behind him all that’s left to see is a black silhouette and the muzzle of a revolver smelling of powder smoke and lead.
I wonder if I’ll ever find Jenny to get my eight dollars.